Yes, I do write erotic fantasy along with the non- (or at least less-) erotic sort. In fact, I’ve just started a new serial, Fair Trade, that is an urban fantasy but also distinctly erotic. And no, I see no reason at all to be embarrassed about that. This post is not an apology or an excuse. It is my personal take on the existence of, and frequent dismissal of, erotic literature.
First, we need to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.
WordNet defines erotica as “creative activity (writing or pictures or films etc.) of no literary or artistic value other than to stimulate sexual desire”. I do not agree with this highly judgmental definition at all, nor with declaring pornography and smut to be its synonyms. In fact, that’s pretty much my whole thesis here, that erotica can have entertainment, literary, and/or artistic value aside from its ability to stimulate sexually.
Wiktionary has the much less disparaging “Erotic literature, art, decoration or other such work” with a usage note of, “This word sometimes encompasses only material that is not pornographic and has or is purported to have artistic or social value, but also can include pornography, depending on the context and speaker.” Erotic is defined by Wiktionary as “Relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement.” As long as we understand “erotic” to include a broad umbrella of peripheral aspects that might not be sexual in the traditional sense but often interact with it, then I think we can go with that.
Sexuality, the erotic, and all the associated instincts, drives, and emotions are complex and powerful and common, although not universal, and while any given nuanced combination is probably unique, the individual aspects generally are not. The erotic incorporates body and mind, emotion and imagination, spirit and culture, all integrated into one–or with conflicts between that, unresolved, can be devastating. Few other aspects of our existence encompass so broad a range or reach so deep. The erotic can lend that power and passion to fiction, whether it’s incorporated as secondary layers or more centrally–as long as it’s used properly, and isn’t expected to stand alone.
Erotica gets a bad rap. We don’t have separate classifications for a novel about someone fighting to save the world (possibly with lots of violence and death) as compared to a novel about someone trying (non-violently) to reunite with a lost sibling, even though these are drastically different subjects. And yet, because of our cultural emphasis on sex as taboo, a novel with a central theme centred in the erotic, even if it has minimal explicit sexual contact, is in a different category, age-restricted. The premise and setting and storyline and characters and everything else become irrelevant, secondary only to that one label. I’m not saying it should be everyone’s cup of tea, but then, neither are fantasy or scifi, or thrillers, or romances.
How do I decide whether my own work is erotica or otherwise? I consider the intent and the focus. If the primary storyline of whatever I’m writing (or reading) is driven heavily or entirely by the erotic, even if it’s short on squishy noises, then I call it erotica. If the primary storyline is something else, then whether or not there is any explicit sexual content, I won’t consider it erotica. Either way, it won’t be binary. My erotica is never 100% about the erotic, and my regular work generally has at least some erotic undertones. It’s pretty much a given that there will be characters who experience and express varied sexual orientations, gender identities, kinks, approaches to monogamy, and so on and so forth.
No question, there is an abundance of bad erotica out there. There are masses of it online, short pieces that were clearly never edited and are barely literate, with appalling grammar and spelling, often in a single massive block with no paragraph divisions. There’s also bad erotica that has been published and made the author an absurd fortune, despite confusing kink with abuse. And yet… in the Bible, the Song of Solomon is a multi-sensual lyrical description of passion and longing for a lover, no matter how allegorically you choose to interpret it. A substantial amount of the so-called Arabian Nights is erotic in tone. Want more examples? Check Wikipedia for the history of erotic literature (please note that poetry is discussed first, and prose below), everything from Sumerian mythology to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and they aren’t all the non-consensual nasty sort that de Sade and others liked. Erotic content alone does not determine quality. There’s plenty of non-erotic fiction written, both online and published, that is virtually unreadable. That doesn’t mean that all non-erotic fiction should be condemned.
Now, your mileage may vary, but what I consider good erotica is every bit as complex, and requires every bit as much skill, as non-erotica. In some aspects it may take a bit less — the plot may be simpler, for example — but in other ways, it requires more skill. I prefer fantasy, urban or otherwise, which shouldn’t be a surprise, and that means creating an interesting and consistent premise to work within. In many ways, it’s necessary to delve even more deeply into the mind of one or more characters, to be able to perceive things from their perspective and understand how they feel and react. Again personal taste, I find that I strongly prefer erotica that teases the imagination on multiple levels, something more original and creative than yet another description of heterosexual missionary sex. I want to be able to feel what the characters are feeling. All of it. I want to be able to put myself in their skin, and I want them to be completely engaged on a level deeper than purely physical. I want to know how they feel about whoever else might be involved. Is it someone they trust, in which case how far and do they deserve it? Or is it someone about whom they’re ambivalent, and if so, why are they there and why do they feel that way? I want to know whether what they’re doing is natural and familiar to them, or something new that feels naughty and exhilarating, something that makes them feel embarrassed or something they’re welcoming joyfully or both. Does dressing sexy or being restrained make them feel vulnerable or secure? I want to be there. Otherwise, what’s the point? As a result, my own erotica tends to have several times as much detail layered in, describing sensory input of all kinds, often things I’d leave out if it were non-erotica. Writing scene after scene in language that portrays everything vividly and brings it to life, incorporating as many senses as possible, without descending into repetitive phrasing or cliches or boring profanity, while juggling not only the motivations and moods of all characters involved but also what is physically plausible, can be surprisingly hard work. Rewarding, and fun, but hard work.
And I should point out: I feel the same way about non-erotic fiction. If I can’t live it and feel it, then it’s a waste of my time. Clever plots and wordplay do nothing for me if I can’t get lost in the reality of it.
Overall, my erotica tends to grow and evolve and flower in much the same way as anything else I write: organically and without any appreciable degree of conscious control. Typically, I start with a simple core idea. What if you have a trans shaman who leaves her home culture to find herself, then has an overwhelming reason to go home and interact with the people she once knew? What if you have a teenaged runaway who’s actually a werewolf but doesn’t know it, and belongs in a northern Ontario village where wolves and other kinds of strangeness are ordinary? What if you have mages with active magic and sensitives who can feed them magical energy, but the system has been corrupted so that mages effectively treat sensitives like animals or property–but not all go along with it? What if a woman with a terrifying and apparently unique telepathic ability is less unique than she believes, and where are the others?
I create a group of characters that I think will work to express that idea, and I start writing. The character that I expected to be primary might not be, it might turn out that someone else does a better job. I usually find that I was wrong about some of the limited information I sketched out about them. Some characters might need to be scrapped and replaced. As I go, I start realizing that if X, then Y, and therefore Z, which would imply that either A or B must be the case and I’ll need to figure out which or possibly both situationally, and that result suggests C, and if both C and Y are true, then D and E must be as well, and given how biology/societies/physics/whatever function, then F has to be, otherwise it all falls down… And as that progresses, I get more and more hyper, watching a world and a group of characters coming to life in front of me, transforming from a few words and an idea into a detailed, internally consistent reality. At this point I usually have no idea what the plot is going to look like. I just keep writing, letting it flow wherever feels natural to the characters, until sooner or later I stumble over something that goes “Bing!” inside my head and I discover that I’ve found a plot seed. I generally have to do intensive editing of the early parts, or toss them entirely, but so what? Anything that’s so much fun and will ultimately give me a useful result is worth it. Eventually, I have something that looks approximately like a novel. Then I can take a machete to it for the first big edit.
The same process happens regardless of what I’m writing, and that includes erotica.
Fair Trade, recently released, started off with a very simple concept: a very ordinary woman finds out that a friend is actually a powerful fae who is willing to make bargains, paid for in service to the fae for a set period. I was tired and a bit burned out on my “serious” projects and decided to play with it to see what would happen. The two central characters started off promising to come comfortably to life for me, so I persisted into the first bargain — which, in fact, involves zero sex as such. Jillian finds herself in a sexy French maid uniform, helping her friend Min’s rescued human pet Flair with serving food and drinks at a gathering of a dozen fae who have varied attitudes towards humans. Simple enough. Then some of Min’s friends began to come to life as well, inviting me to look more closely at who they are… and, of course, if Min bargains with humans, presumably at least some of her friends do as well, so where are those humans? How does Min’s more-or-less husband feel about Min’s human favourites? How do other fae feel about humans?
This has, at this point, progressed into a fairly complex layered culture with its own values and priorities. While the storyline at the core is Jillian realizing she’s not happy and starting to expand her horizons, that isn’t entirely about her sexuality — and she is not doing so in a vacuum. Sure, it’s erotic, and I’m not claiming otherwise. The question of control and the voluntary surrender of it and under what conditions and why is a dominant theme running under everything. Fetish imagery abounds. So does sex, at several points.
What I’m saying is, if the same degree of effort is poured into erotic fiction, it can have vivid characters, plausible interactions, conflict and choices and growth, trials to overcome, a believable and interesting setting, a storyline… along with being sexually arousing and stimulating. It can, therefore, have value equal to any other form of fiction, as entertainment, literature, or art. And that’s never something to be embarrassed about.